A strange and slightly silly controversy is still unfolding over a Washington Post column in which Dana Milbank described the verbal abuse heaped on a woman who hazarded a critical comment at a Heritage Foundation event. At one point, according to Milbank, a panelist berated a Muslim woman who hazarded to ask why everybody at the event was fixated upon demonizing Muslim people. After the extensive upbraiding, the audience delivered the panelist a standing ovation.
Before we get deeper into the specifics, it's vital to understand the environment Milbank was reporting from. So a quick word on Heritage Foundation events, or at least certain Heritage Foundation events.
I've attended a handful of them over the years. Sometimes they're elucidating. Other times they're revelatory. Unless you're attending as a conservative movement foot soldier, they're almost always extremely awkward. Atmospherically, they bear no resemblance to the sleepy image connoted by the words "think tank event." I don't think anyone can fully appreciate this story unless they've witnessed something similar first hand.
I wasn't shocked at all when I read Milbank's account, because I've been inside that cocoon before, and I knew exactly why he wrote the piece the way he did.
Not everyone else was satisfied, though, including Heritage supporters and more neutral arbiters like CNN's Jake Tapper. Milbank directed them to a nine-minute clip of the key exchange—uploaded by Heritage and posted online by the liberal watchdog group Media Matters—presumably expecting that the footage would vindicate his version of events.
But it didn't satisfy Politico's media reporter Dylan Byers, who now argues that Milbank omitted exculpatory details and engaged in hyperbole by using words like "pounced" and "demanded."
I wasn't there on Monday. Watching the clip, I nevertheless detected "pounces" and "demands," though I suppose those are subjective judgments. But I think the video format in general does a disservice to how uncomfortable lopsided encounters in that strange environment really are. It's really jarring, and difficult to dislodge. There's just no way you leave thinking the altercation wasn't the key moment, or that the panel and the guests didn't let their collective Id get the better of them.
Byers almost cedes the point, in a parenthetical allowing that "[Brigitte] Gabriel's comparison to Nazi Germany—'Most Germans were peaceful, yet the Nazis drove the agenda and as a result, 60 million died'—is far more problematic, and arguably absurd, but she has every right to make it."
Well, yeah. Nobody, including Milbank, claims she didn't have a right to make the comparison, or that the audience didn't have the right to applaud it. The point is that the diatribe itself was ugly and its reception unflattering to Heritage. And if you've attended similar events there, the atmospherics Milbank describes won't surprise you at all, even if the video doesn't convey them as well as he does.
This post has been updated.
Brian Beutler is a senior editor at The New Republic.